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Neurohacking - Basics
Written by NHA   
Wednesday, 12 August 2009 23:41
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Learning & Memory: The Basics

 

(This article is complementary material for Tutorials 2, 5 and 6)

 

Stretching & Relaxing

First, get the concept of stretching and relaxing, because it's a part of the natural learning cycle.

When you stretch and relax muscles in exercise, they get bigger, fitter and more efficient over time, and consequently your physical performance improves. Exactly the same thing happens to the networks in your brain.

How do you stretch a network? The same way that you stretch a muscle -you give it something to do that is just a little different, but that it can get the hang of with practice. The mental ‘stretching’ takes place when we encounter something new or unknown, and the ‘relaxing’ takes place when that thing becomes known, familiar and automatic. These events are marked chemically by the release of different transmitters in the brain and physiologically by changes in the actual networks themselves, making them more efficient at transferring and processing information, improving the speed and acuity of your mental abilities.

When you stretch the mind it will release SMALL amounts of stress hormones. When you relax the mind it releases other chemicals to neutralize them, so that's fine as long as you DO the relaxation half of the cycle. The stretch half is about learning and the relax half is about remembering. If you can't do that half (and many people have trouble with it) your memory will be poor and it will take many repetitions of the material for you to learn anything permanently.

The stretch response is the 'desire' half of our pleasure system. We are 'drawn towards' and attracted to whatever we want to learn more about, and we become more alert, excited and observant. The relaxation response is the ‘fulfilment’ half of our pleasure system. It occurs when your brain chemistry changes in response to assimilation, success, satisfaction, fulfilment or understanding. During this response, heart rate and blood pressure slow, and cortisol production is turned off. Natural opioids and more oxytocin are released in the brain, making us feel very comfortable and satisfied, yet still ready to interact. During natural learning, this response occurs naturally. When there is too much cortisol present in the bloodstream, it can’t.

So it's important to know how to do the relaxation response, especially if you're a worrier or nervous. The biggest problem in the way of learning is anxiety, and you should study this (Read: “Anxiety and input control: the basics”, in the basics section of the library).

 

The Learning Cycle

Following the pattern that biology works with is the way you learned to walk and talk, and it’s the fast, easy way to learn.

It's possible to map the learning cycle into either four or six stages. It's easiest to use the four-stage model unless you are going to do serious neurohacking or you're a biological psychology student, so that's the version we'll present here.

 

A Good Mnemonic: COMP

The learning cycle is a pattern that enables us to move into an unknown, unpredictable area [stretch], interact with it, and understand, assimilate or digest it into our known, predictable body of knowledge [relax]. Each successful learning cycle increases the scope of the known; the relaxed state.

The learning cycle works with our biology to develop our mental skills in the right order. If we ignore the way the brain works, we can still have intent to learn, but it’s very hard to manifest it beyond wishful thinking.

The stress/relax cycle breaks down into four stages that we have a simple formula for remembering; “COMP”.

COMP stands for “Concentration, Observation, Modeling, Practice & variation.”  This next section explains what the brain is doing during these stages.

 

Concentration

This stage is about “the basics”. Our intent is to take in information. In order to do so, we have to stay alert and pay attention.

Concentration allows us to pay attention to information so that it stays in our memory long enough to be useful.

Concentrating involves a state of mental alertness, attention over time, and avoiding distraction. .

Poor concentration means that the information does not get taken in, and memories then have no chance of getting into long term storage. It’s very often the case that memory loss, or apparently ‘poor memory’ is simply a failure to pay enough attention in the first place. That is obvious really, but you must not underestimate its importance. It is easy to sharpen your memory when you realise this first fact: paying attention in a particular way is crucial to memory processing.

Motivation and mental arousal are key factors affecting attention. We must be interested in what we are trying to learn, and not find it distasteful in any way. And we must avoid distractions.

Old theories of motivation hold that satisfaction reduces subsequent motivational drive. But several experiments and later MRI images indicated otherwise. When we desire something and get it, the subsequent feeling of satisfaction reinforces and increases the strength of that desire when it returns. Conversely, chronically unsatisfied desires may diminish the intensity of motivation.

Addiction becomes a useful factor in learning. In addiction, getting leads to more desire to get. One example is alcohol: Most people can live without it before they discover it, but getting pleasure from it does increase the desire for more. We are born addicted to learning, but society ‘cures’ that quite early on by making sure that it is neither interesting nor pleasant.

Many things can distract you when you are trying to learn, including your body. You may be too hot or too cold right now, hungry, tired, needing the bathroom, a cigarette or a cup of coffee. Your thoughts can distract you too –you may be wondering whether your friend is going to be okay or why some person said something strange about you last week or whether you will pass your exams this summer. All of these things distract you and slow down learning, and if you’re distracted while you’re reading this you’re not even going to get the first point.

The first point is that we have to operate fully in the here and now with our attention focused on what we are doing; not on whatever might happen in the future or has happened in the past. Only then can we have true concentration without distractions, and that’s the first thing we need to grasp the basics.

What’s biology doing, when we get this right? –Concentration on our subject in an attentive manner fires the brain’s “stress” response, sending dopamine and other chemicals like noradrenaline and acetylcholine around our brain to increase our alertness, attention and interest in what we are doing. Our perception improves and we notice more details and we start to take more notice of what is going on.

This is one of the areas where anxiety can be particularly troublesome because anxiety in itself is a distraction that makes it very, very hard for us to learn anything new. We can’t explore the unknown effectively, because unconsciously we’re too afraid to try anything different, too afraid to make a mistake, too worried what other people might think if they are watching and too worried about things that might or did happen to pay any real attention to what is going on in the present.

To get an idea of how all-pervasive anxiety can be, imagine trying to concentrate on something new in school one morning after a bully has told you they are going to beat you up at lunchtime. –How can you think of anything else but the coming threat? You cannot concentrate on anything except for the thing causing the anxiety, and the more that you imagine it, the worse it gets. It is obvious in this example just how powerful anxiety can be, but that is because this is a physical example. Far less obvious is unconscious anxiety, which is how many little things can stress us out over time or we can feel anxious without really knowing a logical cause. This is why it's important to reduce your anxiety hormone levels by whatever methods you can, even if you don’t feel consciously anxious.

 

Observation

This stage is about understanding “the details” and making associations about what you are learning. It is where we start to [still partly unconsciously] look for connections, between the new thing that we are exploring and experiences that we have had before. We compare for example what we are reading now to stuff that we know already and to our own ideas, we make associations, and slowly we start to see where these new ideas fit into our scheme of “how things work” and why and how the new thing is relevant.

From time to time during this phase our brain moves bits of information around in memory, to help us to associate more effectively. When this happens, the natural thing for us to do is to stare, often apparently blankly at the wall and this is sometimes known as ‘daydreaming’ [daydreaming is not the same as ‘fantasizing’ about winning the lottery, or going out with your favorite celebrity, for example –this is wishful thinking; not daydreaming. Nor does it count if you’re staring blankly at the wall because you’re too stoned.]

Daydreaming [and consequently staring] is a vitally important part of learning which, if allowed to proceed without interruption, will speed up the learning process a lot. We should not interrupt people who are doing it, because we are interfering with their learning speed if we do. Our brainwave patterns change when we are staring; we are unconsciously accessing relevant information to “fill in the details” of what we know about the new information. To sustain your attention consistently enough to process information into long term memory [that is, to encode it], you need to keep a good balance between observation [taking in input] and assimilating it so regular breaks, especially if spent staring, are beneficial.

You cannot easily initiate ‘staring’ on purpose –the brain knows when it needs to be done naturally, and you should work with that. If you find yourself losing concentration, getting confused or bored, stop and take a break, or do something totally different. The subject will return to your conscious awareness when the unconscious networks of the brain have ‘caught up’.

What’s biology doing? As you learn more of the details, your brain creates an increasingly complex net of associations, integrating the new information with what you know already. When you’re staring, your brain is doing on the spot “Defragmenting”, moving important bits of what you have learned into your long term memory and connecting the pathways for access to it. And at that point we begin:

 

Modeling

In modeling we are not merely an observer; we begin to interact with the subject of our inquiry [the observer becomes a participator, because of the nature of learning]. This is the part of learning that requires skill in creativity and imagination, because in order to learn anything well we jump forwards in time in our imagination. This is what biology is designed to do. You have to imagine what it would be like and feel like if your intent had already come to pass, and then you have to behave as though it has happened or is happening. You behave as though you had “got it” and put that to the test, then watch where you go wrong, and do it again. You have to do what a child would do –you have to play. The moment you get the hang of behaving exactly as you would if your intent had become reality, it starts to.

A good example is how we learn to walk. We don’t wait until we feel confident about walking to give it a try, we just behave as though we can do it and set off –and fall over. But all we do in order to correct that error is get right up again and go for it –letting our brain do all the complicated computation to correct our mistakes as we just get on with it. Our brain figures out what it takes to fire the right neurons to make our body move in a coordinated, balanced way simply by using feedback –which is why that feedback needs to be given.

The most important thing about learning to walk though is, again, not being distracted. If, every time we fell over, we focused our attention on the object that had tripped us, we’d never learn to walk. Being distracted by errors is a classic bad habit that most people have learned [again because of schooling] and it can be particularly distracting if you were brought up to believe that error is bad.

Coleman Hawkins (a famous musician) said, “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not really trying”. Thomas Edison, after more than 2000 attempts, invented a working light bulb. He said, “I learned 2000 ways how not to make a light bulb, and that taught me how to make a light bulb”. Mistakes are, because of the necessity for feedback, the only way we can learn to do things optimally. If you allow your brain to do so, it will learn from your mistakes just as effectively as it did when you were learning to walk.

Modeling is called modeling because during this phase we copy a model. It may be a mental model of how it feels to be adept at the new task, or it may be a physical example of someone who is already adept at a skill we require to learn; either on a screen or in real life. In youth it is often our parents and friends that we learn skills from this way. Some people choose a spiritual model when following a spiritual path, but a model is not a coach so much as an example of how to do it right, whatever it is. If you are learning a creative skill, make sure your role model genuinely has the ability to manifest their intent through their medium, and stick to them like glue.

It’s not essential to have a physical living model for all learning, but it can be a big asset if you do.

The talent for high fidelity copying is among the greatest of human assets. Because of it, humans are uniquely adapted to both receive and pass on information and skills. This natural way of learning is at the root of all human culture.

What’s biology doing? –Firing up special kinds of brain cell called “mirror neurons”, that help us to ‘reflect’ upon the new ideas and start to use our imagination. If the skill being learned is a sport, for example, we would start to imagine ourselves performing it. If we are reading an emotional story, we would begin to empathize with the characters and “get into it” as we imagine how they might have felt. If we are learning scientific information, we may imagine how the new information applies to areas of our lives and the lives of others.

We are able to learn from imitation; not just skills but states of mind. Imitation –copying both the method and the outcome of a task- is not the same as emulation. Emulation focuses on the results of a task and then tries to achieve it by figuring it out. At first, emulation would seem a more optimal way to go about things, so why does biology favor imitation?

Because humans live in groups of massive cultural complexity, young ones need to be able to learn quickly how to do many, many things, modifying techniques later on if need be during practice & variation. Imitation is quicker than explanation because it provides an already-working solution to the problem, with time for explanation along the way while practicing. We are evolved to seek examples from the already-adept, and copy them. Genuine teaching is the art of being adept at demonstrating a skill whilst explaining it until the observers have “got it”. What we are ‘learning’ during explanations is how to think in the same way as the teacher; not the facts themselves. Only by thinking like the teacher can we easily remember those facts, because our mind is redesigned to accommodate them by our biology copying theirs. We must learn to perceive as they perceive; copy their perception, then we will know the subject as well as they.

Demonstration and directed examples would have been necessary for our distant ancestors to learn from each other long before speech emerged, using mime and hands-on demonstration to show how tools were made or techniques used. And this is still one of the basics of our learning today.

 

P&V – Practice & Variation

Every time you engage in an act of creative play, your brain releases chemicals on the assumption that what you are doing is real. The unconscious brain doesn’t know that you are learning to drive –it only knows that you are driving –you are behaving like a person who can drive, in that you are getting into a car and pressing pedals and turning the wheel and things. The brain itself has no concern where its input is coming from; it just does its job and gets on with making the required chemical changes in response to your actual behavior and awareness; not the theory behind driving skills. In effect, you are playing at driving, in a safe space where someone experienced has dual controls. And that’s how you teach your brain to drive.

What’s biology doing? –Engaging in creative play on a regular basis creates a concentration of chemicals that trigger changes in your genome –a change in the expression of your genetic code. Different genes are turned on that produce new proteins for new brain growth; new connections between cells. Remember that the brain doesn’t grow larger outwards as you become more adept –it grows in density –in the number of connections between brain cells. As it builds these connections, you “get it”. You begin to truly understand whatever you are learning and it starts to become ‘known’ to you, and eventually automatic.

Practice literally changes your mind –you become more adept and these changes in intelligence will remain, as long as you use the skills that they bring. By varying the circumstances of practice we come to understand what we are learning ever more fully.

Whenever we reach this point in the learning cycle, your brain releases serotonin. This initiates the relaxation response. Other chemicals are triggered including the brains own natural opioids, and it feels very very nice.

The neural pathways through which we learn about the world tap into the same pleasure network in the brain as are activated by drugs like heroin. It’s nature’s way of saying, “well done you!” Opioids are released at the “I get it!” part of comprehension and until we have achieved that, we’ll remain enthusiastic about learning the same thing. It is this part of the system that gives us the intent to seek new information.

Going through the learning cycle in the right order is important. The further information travels through the processing networks, the more receptors there are for these chemicals; that is to say, they occur in increasing numbers as you move through the networks. Because of this, information that triggers the most associations and conveys the most meaning to a person causes the greatest relaxation response and the strongest memory.

Does the effect wear off? Yes. As skills become automatic they use different parts of the networks with not so many receptors. Repetition [P&V] encourages this shift, freeing up the pathways for new learning.

 

Summary

Concentration needs:

[brain networks 1&2]

  • Your physical senses and the brain’s physical condition
  • Your perception
  • Your alertness, attention and orientation

 

Observation needs all of the above, plus:

[network 3]

  • Your memory and association skills
  • Your imagination
  • Your emotional stability

 

Modeling needs all of the above, plus:

[Networks 4&5]

  • Your creativity and ability to use tools
  • Your intellect/IQ

 

Practice & Variation need all of the above, plus:

[Network 6]

  • Your prediction, planning and strategy skills

 

(If you want to learn more about brain networks, read Anatomy, Physiology and Brain Networks: The Basics in the basics section of the library, or the tutorials)

 

 

 

 

 



Last Updated on Friday, 02 August 2013 13:42